Since around 1962, the greasy spoon near the corner of Miller Road and Ballenger Highway has served up comfort food and pride. That tradition of hotcakes, fresh coffee, pressed burgers, fries and hand-dipped milkshakes carries on with Frank Dinaj and his staff at Westside Diner. “You can ask anyone working here, many of them have been here some 10, 18 or 20 years on average,” he says.
Co-owner Dinaj, his wife, brother and sister-in-law took over Westside Diner from Kosta Popoff, owner of Starlite Diner & Coney Island in Burton, back in 2002. Growing up in the Detroit area, and working in his father’s restaurants, Dinaj says, “This is the only kind of job I’ve ever had, and it’s one of the few places in town where you have one of the owners making your food.”
Many customers know the insides of the establishment, through and through. They know which booths they like to sit at and sometimes even have a “usual” spot. (The author has frequented this spot since he was in the fifth grade).
The former Robertson’s menu hangs in the back. “Used to be you could get fish and chips for a like a dollar or burger for 25 cents.” Along with the menu is a black and white picture showing a row of Buicks and Chevrolets parked in line like a scene from “American Graffiti.”
“We don’t really go with the trends you know,” says Frank sitting back along the 50’s style soda pop bar. “There’s nothing commercial about this place. We work a lot of our stuff from scratch,” he says. Their signature dishes—beyond an olive burger and fries or a Flint-style coney—include golden crisp fish and chips or a corned beef shredded reuben. “This is a family oriented restaurant,” he says. “You can find me here at the grill everyday.”
In early afternoon, just after the lunch rush, a few people walk in nodding to Dinaj or waving to others as they take their place at their favorite booths and tables. “I think there is something about that, something familiar that people here really enjoy. We have classic comfort food and people come here expecting their favorites,” he says, adding that secret ingredient in every Westside dish, ”because they get that feeling of home.”
Lining the walls are 1950’s era memorabilia, including an old jukebox, posters of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, as well as many other knick knacks from the time. “We are the original 50’s diner,” Dinaj says. “There have been a few other places that have opened up around here with a similar theme, but we are the only one still open.”
The red leather, metal-lined booths, coat hangers, and kish have a worn feel, but a shine that shows they’ve been cared for over the years. As more people start coming in for a late lunch rush, Dinaj focuses in on the back grill. “We have thought about it,” he says of making changes to the old-school restaurant, “but I don’t think our customers would be up for it.”
“We’ve been lucky over the years to have a place and classic style of food that people like,” Dinaj says, noting the varied clientele Westside Diner attracts. “It’s great to have that mix. We can have people come in that talk about what they had here 30 to 40 years ago and young kids saying, ‘I didn’t know this was here!’”
From taking on the restaurant 15 years ago, the co-owner has seen a lot of changes for the better. “We had some rough years, now and then,” he says looking down the bar across the dining floor. “But the neighborhood has actually gotten a lot safer. You go around Flint now and you do see a lot of folks coming back.”
He stops short. Sure, he says, there are also problems here including continued work on Flint’s water system—but he says there also are so many people working on them
“If you look there,” Frank says, pointing at a small patch of a garden at the intersection, “Ladies come out almost every day to work that little plot—every week—and I make sure to give them coffee or something, because they’re doing that for free.
“That’s the thing,” he says, keeping his eye out on the dining room. “It’s what we can do for Flint people. We got to keep looking out for each other.”
Westside Diner is located at 2336 S. Ballenger Highway. It is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.